Coyotes (Canis latrans) have inhabited the West for more than 1 million years. Lewis and Clark were reportedly the first non-native people to spot them while on their expedition in 1804 in present-day South Dakota.
They thought they were a new fox species until they shot one and called it a prairie wolf. At that time, the coyote was not found east of the Great Plains.
The coyote coexisted with Indigenous people for millennia and appears often in their mythology and traditions — usually as a savvy animal with extraordinary powers described as a creator or trickster. Depicted as a deity, coyote instructs people about proper behavior in life.
After colonization and the conversion of forests to farms, coyotes have been subject to systemic human persecution in a pitiless war of extermination waged for centuries by ranchers and hunters assisted by government agencies. This is because these native predators, closely related to our beloved dogs, kill lambs, cow calves and other livestock and wild game, especially deer.
Despite these control efforts, coyotes engineered a dramatic range expansion across North and Central America beginning in the early 20th century. They now occur from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Alaska to Panama. They are found in every U.S. state except Hawaii and in every Canadian province, overcoming eradication efforts to thrive where other large predators have been extirpated or greatly reduced.
Maryland and Delaware were the last two states to be colonized by coyotes. First spotted in Maryland in 1972, these intelligent canines are now found in all 23 counties and in Baltimore City. They have been found in Annapolis and in Washington, D.C. The highest Maryland densities occur in the western counties decreasing to the east with the lowest densities on the Eastern Shore.
The elimination of other large predators — wolves and mountain lions — and the conversion of Eastern deciduous forest to agriculture, contributed to this range expansion. Hybridization with wolves and domestic dogs appears to have occurred in our Eastern population aiding in their spread and acculturation.
The human-induced landscape changes leaving fragmented forest and adjacent open areas provide excellent habitat for these adaptable canines offering a cornucopia of their major prey items: rodents (rats, mice, voles), moles, squirrels and rabbits, and carrion, including road-killed deer.
Overabundant white-tailed deer, mostly fawns, are also preyed upon. Coyotes are opportunistic omnivores and will eat almost anything available, including birds, snakes, insects, fruits, nuts, grass and berries. They also may take free-roaming cats and small dogs.
Many wildlife managers and wildlife lovers see coyotes as a natural replacement for exterminated predators, including wolves and mountain lions. These wily critters can tamp down abundant red fox populations as they out-compete foxes.
Coyotes also help prevent the loss of millions of birds and small mammals by killing free roaming cats, especially in feral cat colonies supported by misguided humans who leave food for them, which attracts coyotes. The Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) recommends pet cats or dogs not be allowed to roam free and not to leave food outdoors to feed feral cats. This will eliminate predation on pets.
Since coyotes will take fawns and much more rarely adult deer, such culling could be beneficial in areas in central Maryland where deer are grossly overabundant and causing human health problems from Lyme disease and car collisions. But there is no evidence that coyotes have any real influence on deer populations.
Unfortunately, many ranchers, farmers and hunters still regard coyotes as destructive pests. Because coyotes are predators, other citizens have an irrational fear of these native animals.
According to DNR: “Public opinion concerning coyotes evolves in a very predictable fashion. As coyotes first appear in an area, they are novel and receive a great deal of interest. As population densities and associated nuisance complaints increase, public opinion quickly changes from novel fascination, to ‘I do not want this animal in my neighborhood.’ Few, if any other, wildlife species evoke as widespread and passionate disdain by the general public as coyotes.”
DNR is under increasing pressure by hunters and agriculturalists to decrease coyote numbers. In 2021, the legislature’s budget committees ordered DNR to conduct an impact assessment because: “the coyote population is threatening both domestic and wild animals as well as public health, safety, and welfare.”
DNR biologists issued an excellent report wisely rebutting these faulty conclusions finding that: “In Maryland, at this time, coyote impacts to native wildlife are considered to be minimal…. Yearly losses of livestock due to coyote specific predation do not represent a statistically significant portion of yearly production costs The cost of coyote-domestic animal conflicts is not expected to significantly increase for the foreseeable future.”
The report noted that coyote attacks on humans are extremely rare and any danger to human safety is often greatly exaggerated by the public. Coyotes are naturally wary of humans and are too small to pose a threat. The report noted some benefits from coyotes, including improving songbird and other ground nesting bird populations.
There certainly coyotes in our area. Sometimes at night, on Skye's occasional late walks, I have heard suspicious calls, and one time, I'm pretty sure what was a coyote walked boldly down the street. However, I've never heard of any problem with coyotes and livestock or pets, although I suspect such incidents have occurred. I imagine many farms live by the rule "shoot, shovel and shut up."